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David Frankel





Taking Control of the Story: God Hardens Pharaoh's Heart



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David Frankel





Taking Control of the Story: God Hardens Pharaoh's Heart






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Taking Control of the Story: God Hardens Pharaoh's Heart

Exodus narrates three distinct conceptions of God’s relationship to Pharaoh’s stubbornness: God was surprised, God knew beforehand, and God was the direct cause.  The final conception reflects the Priestly redaction of the Torah, whose authors were unwilling to leave the destiny of the plagues up to Pharaoh’s own heart.


Taking Control of the Story: God Hardens Pharaoh's Heart

Moses Speaks to Pharaoh, James Tissot, French, c. 1896-1902. Wikimedia

‍Hardening Pharaoh’s Heart: Theological and Narrative Problems

The claim that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart is theologically problematic. The Exodus narrative is often summarized as suggesting that despite God negotiating with Pharaoh and bringing about plagues to convince him to let Israel go, God is really forcing Pharaoh to be stubborn. According to this, God is acting in bad faith, the plagues are inevitable, the warnings and negotiations a dance or charade.

Upon closer inspection, however, we find that not every reference to Pharaoh’s hard (ח-ז-ק) heart sees God as its cause; sometimes Pharaoh’s heart hardens by itself.[1] A complete list of the use of the root ח-ז-ק in relation to Pharaoh’s heart follows. Note the following:

  • The switch from Pharaoh’s heart hardening to God hardening Pharaoh’s heart.
  • In the plagues of hail, locusts, and darkness, the ending phrase has switched from “he did not listen” to “he did not send.”

Staff into Serpent (Exod. 7:13)

וַיֶּחֱזַק֙ לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֔ה וְלֹ֥א שָׁמַ֖ע אֲלֵהֶ֑ם כַּאֲשֶׁ֖ר דִּבֶּ֥ר יְ-הֹוָֽה:
Pharaoh’s heart hardened and he did not listen to them as Yhwh said.

Blood (Exod 7:22)

וַיֶּחֱזַ֤ק לֵב־פַּרְעֹה֙ וְלֹא־שָׁמַ֣ע אֲלֵהֶ֔ם כַּאֲשֶׁ֖ר דִּבֶּ֥ר יְ-הֹוָֽה:
Pharaoh’s heart hardened and he did not listen to them as Yhwh said.

‍Frogs (Exod 8:11)

[*וַיֶּחֱזַק לֵב־פַּרְעֹה][2] וְלֹ֥א שָׁמַ֖ע אֲלֵהֶ֑ם כַּאֲשֶׁ֖ר דִּבֶּ֥ר יְ-הֹוָֽה:
[*Pharaoh’s heart hardened] and he did not listen to them as Yhwh said.

‍Lice (Exod 8:15)[3]

וַיֶּחֱזַ֤ק לֵב־פַּרְעֹה֙ וְלֹֽא־שָׁמַ֣ע אֲלֵהֶ֔ם כַּאֲשֶׁ֖ר דִּבֶּ֥ר יְ-הֹוָֽה:
Pharaoh’s heart hardened and he did not listen to them as Yhwh said.

‍Boils (Exod 9:12)

וַיְחַזֵּ֤ק יְ-הֹוָה֙ אֶת־לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֔ה וְלֹ֥א שָׁמַ֖ע אֲלֵהֶ֑ם כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר דִּבֶּ֥ר יְ-הֹוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶֽׁה:
Yhwh hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he did not listen to them as Yhwh said to Moses.

‍Hail (Exod 9:35)

וַֽיֶּחֱזַק֙ לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֔ה וְלֹ֥א שִׁלַּ֖ח אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר דִּבֶּ֥ר יְ-הֹוָ֖ה בְּיַד־מֹשֶֽׁה:
Pharaoh’s heart hardened and he did not send the Israelites as the Lord said through Moses.

‍Locusts (Exod 10:20)

וַיְחַזֵּ֥ק יְ-הֹוָ֖ה אֶת־לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֑ה וְלֹ֥א שִׁלַּ֖ח אֶת־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:
Yhwh hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he did not send the Israelites.

‍Darkness (Exod 10:27)

וַיְחַזֵּ֥ק יְ-הֹוָ֖ה אֶת־לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֑ה וְלֹ֥א אָבָ֖ה לְשַׁלְּחָֽם:
Yhwh hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he did not want to send them.

In a summary towards the end of the plague narrative, the Torah describes what occurred, stating that in all cases God hardened Pharaoh's heart:

יא:ט וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְ-הֹוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה לֹא־יִשְׁמַ֥ע אֲלֵיכֶ֖ם פַּרְעֹ֑ה לְמַ֛עַן רְב֥וֹת מוֹפְתַ֖י בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם: יא:י וּמֹשֶׁ֣ה וְאַהֲרֹ֗ן עָשׂ֛וּ אֶת־כָּל־הַמֹּפְתִ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה לִפְנֵ֣י פַרְעֹ֑ה וַיְחַזֵּ֤ק יְ-הֹוָה֙ אֶת לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֔ה וְלֹֽא שִׁלַּ֥ח אֶת־בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מֵאַרְצֽוֹ:
11:9 Now Yhwh had said to Moses, “Pharaoh will not heed you, in order that My marvels may be multiplied in the land of Egypt.” 11:10 Moses and Aaron had performed all these marvels before Pharaoh, and Yhwh hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he did not send the Israelites from his land.

How are we to explain the inconsistency between the passages that state Pharaoh hardened his own heart and those that state that God did so?

A Progression?

Some, such as Maimonides, see a progression here. In the first three instances, Pharaoh’s heart hardens of its own accord. Only after this, does God decide that he will take away Pharaoh’s free choice and force Pharaoh to harden his heart. This is the punishment that Pharaoh deserves for his own stubbornness. [4]

While this reading is attractive, and may indeed reflect a certain editorial design, it is problematic for the following reasons:

  • Already at the outset God told Moses (Exod 7:3) that God would harden Pharaoh’s heart, rather than it being an act of divine punishment for Pharaoh’s own stubbornness!
  • It does not account for the fact that the fifth passage reverts to the idea that Pharaoh hardened his own heart.
  • It does not account for the shift in endings, from “not listening” to “not sending.”
  • Both formulas end with the phrase “as Yhwh said” So which one did God say? Was it that he would harden Pharaoh’s heart or that Pharaoh would harden his own heart?

Revising the Introduction to the Plagues (in the Priestly Text)

The lack of clarity about who hardens Pharaoh’s heart exists already from the beginning, in the Priestly introduction to the plague narrative at the beginning of Exodus 7:

ז:א וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְ-הֹוָה֙ אֶל מֹשֶׁ֔ה רְאֵ֛ה נְתַתִּ֥יךָ אֱלֹהִ֖ים לְפַרְעֹ֑ה וְאַהֲרֹ֥ן אָחִ֖יךָ יִהְיֶ֥ה נְבִיאֶֽךָ: ז:ב אַתָּ֣ה תְדַבֵּ֔ר אֵ֖ת כָּל אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֲצַוֶּ֑ךָּ וְאַהֲרֹ֤ן אָחִ֙יךָ֙ יְדַבֵּ֣ר אֶל פַּרְעֹ֔ה וְשִׁלַּ֥ח אֶת בְּנֵֽי־ יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מֵאַרְצֽוֹ: ז:ג וַאֲנִ֥י אַקְשֶׁ֖ה אֶת לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֑ה וְהִרְבֵּיתִ֧י אֶת אֹתֹתַ֛י וְאֶת מוֹפְתַ֖י בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם: ז:ד וְלֹֽא יִשְׁמַ֤ע אֲלֵכֶם֙ פַּרְעֹ֔ה וְנָתַתִּ֥י אֶת יָדִ֖י בְּמִצְרָ֑יִם וְהוֹצֵאתִ֨י אֶת צִבְאֹתַ֜י אֶת עַמִּ֤י בְנֵֽי יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם בִּשְׁפָטִ֖ים גְּדֹלִֽים: ז:ה וְיָדְע֤וּ מִצְרַ֙יִם֙ כִּֽי אֲנִ֣י יְ-הֹוָ֔ה בִּנְטֹתִ֥י אֶת יָדִ֖י עַל מִצְרָ֑יִם וְהוֹצֵאתִ֥י אֶת בְּנֵֽי יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מִתּוֹכָֽם:
7:1 Yhwh said to Moses, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet. 7:2 You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of his land. 7:3 And I will stiffen Pharaoh’s heart,[5] and I will multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt. 7:4 And Pharaoh will not listen to you, and I will lay my hand upon Egypt and bring my people the Israelites, company by company, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. 7:5 The Egyptians shall know that I am Yhwh, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out from among them.”

The continuity between verses 3 and 4-5 is awkward. Once we are told in verse 3 that God will stiffen (אקשה) Pharaoh’s heart and then perform wonders, it is odd to revert to the stage of Pharaoh not listening to the request to let the Israelites go. Verses 4 and 5 simply state that God knows that Pharaoh will not listen and that his stubbornness will bring on God’s powerful response. Verse 4 in no way implies that God will manipulate the situation and force Pharaoh to act this way. Instead, the verse states that since God is more powerful than Pharaoh, God will take Israel out anyway, and the Egyptians will know, “that I am Yhwh.”

I, thus, believe that verse 3 is a secondary addition, designed to present God as the one stiffening Pharaoh’s heart. The text originally read:

ז:ב אַתָּ֣ה תְדַבֵּ֔ר אֵ֖ת כָּל אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֲצַוֶּ֑ךָּ וְאַהֲרֹ֤ן אָחִ֙יךָ֙ יְדַבֵּ֣ר אֶל פַּרְעֹ֔ה וְשִׁלַּ֥ח אֶת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מֵאַרְצֽוֹ: ז:ד וְלֹֽא יִשְׁמַ֤ע אֲלֵכֶם֙ פַּרְעֹ֔ה וְנָתַתִּ֥י אֶת יָדִ֖י בְּמִצְרָ֑יִם וְהוֹצֵאתִ֨י אֶת צִבְאֹתַ֜י אֶת עַמִּ֤י בְנֵֽי יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם בִּשְׁפָטִ֖ים גְּדֹלִֽים:
7:2 You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of his land. 7:4 But Pharaoh will not listen to you, and I will lay my hand upon Egypt and bring my people the Israelites, company by company, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment.

This text reads very smoothly: “Pharaoh will not listen to you” of verse 4 relates directly to the command in verse 2 to speak to Pharaoh. Without the added verse, this text coincides with those plagues reports that conclude with the formula of Pharaoh hardening his own heart: Staff into Serpent; Blood; (Frogs); Lice; Hail. Verse 3 is thus a redactional addition reflecting the idea that God was the cause of Pharaoh’s stubbornness.

Two Layers in the Priestly Text of the Plague Story

The beginning of Exodus 7 is universally understood to be from the Priestly authors.[6] Thus, the Priestly text itself has two stages:

  • In the earlier layer of the Priestly stratum, God knows in advance that Pharaoh will not listen and will harden his own heart.
  • In the later stratum, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart himself.

Comparing the Priestly Text to the Non-Priestly Text

The idea expressed in the early layer of P is precisely the idea expressed in the non-Priestly material of 3:19-20:

ג:יט וַאֲנִ֣י יָדַ֔עְתִּי כִּ֠י לֹֽא יִתֵּ֥ן אֶתְכֶ֛ם מֶ֥לֶךְ מִצְרַ֖יִם לַהֲלֹ֑ךְ וְלֹ֖א בְּיָ֥ד חֲזָקָֽה: ג:כ וְשָׁלַחְתִּ֤י אֶת יָדִי֙ וְהִכֵּיתִ֣י אֶת מִצְרַ֔יִם בְּכֹל֙ נִפְלְאֹתַ֔י אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֶֽעֱשֶׂ֖ה בְּקִרְבּ֑וֹ וְאַחֲרֵי כֵ֖ן יְשַׁלַּ֥ח אֶתְכֶֽם:
3:19 Yet I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go except by a mighty hand. 3:20 So I will stretch out My hand and smite Egypt with various wonders which I will work upon them and after that he shall let you go.

This text, however, is not reflective of the core non-P text. Rather, as I show in my TABS essay, "When Pharaoh's Stubbornness Caught God by Surprise," 3:19-20 is itself a secondary layer in non-P.

Oldest Form of Story in Non-P: God Is Surprised by Pharaoh’s Stubbornness

In the original non-P storyline, God does not know that Pharaoh will stand up to him, rather Pharaoh unexpectedly ignores Moses and the signs from God. In this version, God expects Pharaoh not to listen. This is why God in this source never warns Moses that Pharaoh won’t listen to him. This perspective stands behind Moses’ stunned reaction to Pharaoh’s stubbornness:

ה:כב וַיָּ֧שָׁב מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶל יְ-הוָ֖ה וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אֲדֹנָ֗י לָמָ֤ה הֲרֵעֹ֙תָה֙ לָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה שְׁלַחְתָּֽנִי: ה:כג וּמֵאָ֞ז בָּ֤אתִי אֶל פַּרְעֹה֙ לְדַבֵּ֣ר בִּשְׁמֶ֔ךָ הֵרַ֖ע לָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֑ה וְהַצֵּ֥ל לֹא הִצַּ֖לְתָּ אֶת־עַמֶּֽךָ:
5:22 And Moses returned to Yhwh and said, “My Lord, why have you caused evil to this people, why did you send me? 5:23 Since I have come to Pharaoh to speak in Your name it has become worse for this people, and you have not at all saved your people!”

Here God needed to keep assaulting the Egyptians with harsher and harsher plagues, and Moses and Pharaoh must continue to negotiate.

Revising Non-P to Match P’s Early Stratum

Redactors, bothered by the implications of a story where a human being like Pharaoh can essentially toy with God, added 3:19-20 (and a handful of similar verses) to the story.[7] It is likely that the scribes responsible for the redaction of the non-P text were familiar with the early P text, and were influenced by its theological assumptions. Thus, the earliest layer of P coincides with the secondary layer of non-P.

God Hardening Pharaoh’s Heart as a Late Editorial Layer: Moving from Source to Redaction Criticism 

Unlike the non-Priestly text, the earlier Priestly text never considers the possibility that God is surprised at Pharaoh’s reaction. Instead, it begins with the premise that God knew Pharaoh’s heart would harden (ח-ז-ק). Later Priestly redactors, probably functioning with P and non-P in combination, revise this assumption and suggest that God was the one hardening Pharaoh’s heart.

In all likelihood, the late Priestly editor who supplemented God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart to the P report of God’s initial speech to Moses (Exodus 7:3) similarly appended the words "God hardened Pharaoh’s heart" to the end of plagues that were exclusively non-P (Exodus 9:35; 10:20, 27; 11:9-10; cf., however, 9:12).

As the editor was likely revising the combined P and non-P sources, he made use of the non-Priestly formula “and he did not send the Israelites (ולא שלח את בני ישראל)” rather than the Priestly “and he did not listen to them[8] (ולא שמע אליהם).” (See Appendix for another example of this intermingling.)

Three Stages

In terms of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, Exodus preserves three stages of development:

  1. Early Non-Priestly Layer – God is surprised by Pharaoh’s stubbornness, forcing him to send more and more plagues. (Exodus 5:22—6:1; 7:16, 23, 27, etc.)
  2. Earliest Priestly Layer/Secondary Non-Priestly Layer – God knows in advance that Pharaoh will harden his heart/make his heart heavy, and warns Moses of this. This is the storyline in the independent P text. (Exodus 7:4, 22; 8:11b, 15/ Exodus 4:19—20)
  3. Second Priestly Layer – God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. This is the final redactor’s version of the plague account. As he was editing a combined text, non-P texts were modified to include this perspective.[9] (Exodus 7:3; 9:12; 10:20, 27; 11:9—10)

A Matter of Destiny: Theological Reflection on the Priestly Redaction

What motivated the editor to make God responsible for Pharaoh’s refusal? I would suggest that the late Priestly emphasis on God hardening Pharaoh’s heart reflects a heightened conception of the thoroughly “destined” character of the events in Egypt.

To simply state that God knew about Pharaoh’s stubborn character in advance and was relying on it to show off his might still allows for a certain degree of indeterminacy. Not all ten plagues necessarily had to happen. By insisting, however, that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart from beginning to end, the late Priestly editor implied that God had a preordained list of ten plagues and every one of those plagues had to take place just as it did. Nothing in Israel’s sacred history can be allowed to happen any other way.[10]

In this conception, Pharaoh was never really stubborn, for God was hardening his heart from the very outset. Possibly, God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart can be related to Pharaoh’s harsh enslavement of the Israelites. By hardening Pharaoh’s heart God ensures that Egypt is punished for this crime (cf. Exodus 10:2, “how I made sport of the Egyptians”). But ensuring that Egypt undergoes humiliating punishment is not the main concern in these texts. Rather, this latest layer emphasizes that God wanted the world, and particularly the Israelites, to know Yhwh, be aware of his might, and to have a specific story to relate to future generations. This story had to happen as planned.[11]


Teaching Pharaoh or Teaching the Israelites? A Note on Methodology

The Limitations of the Documentary Hypothesis

Despite the claim of many Documentary Hypothesis aficionados, Priestly and non-Priestly material cannot always be neatly distinguished. This is for two reasons:

  1. Though the basic separation between the strands is cogent, neither of the strands appears to be absolutely unified. Each strand may contain earlier as well as later elements.
  2. After the strands were combined, they probably exerted influence upon one another. This commingling of the strands led to a diluting of the differences between them.

In the main essay, I noted some examples of where the final Priestly layer was aware of and responding to the combined text of P and non-P. Here I want to explore an additional example that is particularly illustrative of this point, God’s introductory remarks before the plague of locusts (Exod 10:1-2), which speaks of God hardening/making heavy Pharaoh’s heart.

Teaching Pharaoh or Teaching the Israelites?

A major theme in the non-Priestly plague narrative is that of teaching Pharaoh—who said, “I don’t know Yhwh and I will not send out Israel” (Exodus 5:2)—just who Yhwh is. This is accomplished by sending plagues and then removing them in accordance with God's prediction to Pharaoh as delivered by Moses (7:17; 8:6, 18; 9:16, 29; 11:7).

The introduction to the plague of locusts (Exodus 10:1-2) strays from this non-Priestly theme by claiming, uniquely, that the purpose of the plagues is to provide the Israelites with a story to tell their children so that they may know Yhwh.

י:א וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְ-הֹוָה֙ אֶל מֹשֶׁ֔ה בֹּ֖א אֶל פַּרְעֹ֑ה כִּֽי אֲנִ֞י הִכְבַּ֤דְתִּי אֶת לִבּוֹ֙ וְאֶת לֵ֣ב עֲבָדָ֔יו לְמַ֗עַן שִׁתִ֛י אֹתֹתַ֥י אֵ֖לֶּה בְּקִרְבּוֹ: י:ב וּלְמַ֡עַן תְּסַפֵּר֩ בְּאָזְנֵ֨י בִנְךָ֜ וּבֶן בִּנְךָ֗ אֵ֣ת אֲשֶׁ֤ר הִתְעַלַּ֙לְתִּי֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם וְאֶת אֹתֹתַ֖י אֲשֶׁר שַׂ֣מְתִּי בָ֑ם וִֽידַעְתֶּ֖ם כִּי אֲנִ֥י יְ-הֹוָֽה [אלוהיכם][12]:
10:1 Then Yhwh said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh. For I have made his heart heavy and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them, 10:2 and that you may recount in the hearing of your sons and of your sons’ sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them—in order that you may know that I am Yhwh [your God].”

The concluding phrase, “You shall know that I am Yhwh [your God],” reflects the Priestly concept that plagues were meant to teach the Israelites about God. The same phrase appears in the Priestly report of Moses’ appointment as an explanation of the purpose of the exodus (Exodus 6:7) as well as in other Priestly passages (Exodus 16:12 and cf. Lev. 23:43). The idea that God controls Pharaoh's stubbornness is Priestly as well. And yet, Exodus 10:1 has God say הכבדתי את לב פרעה, using the כ-ב-ד term of non-P rather than the חזק term of P.

This combination of Priestly theology and non-Priestly terminology indicates that this depiction of God making Pharaoh’s heart heavy is editorial, which is why Exodus 10:1-2, though it introduces a non-Priestly section (Exodus 10:3-10) is partly Priestly in language.

These verses thus provide an additional example of where a division into two originally separate, complete sources is impossible, and we instead must take into account later redactions at different points in history.‍


January 13, 2016


Last Updated

October 9, 2020


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Dr. Rabbi David Frankel did his Ph.D. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the direction of Professor Moshe Weinfeld. His publications include The Murmuring Stories of the Priestly School (VTSupp. 89) and The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel (Eisenbrauns). He teaches Hebrew Bible to M.A. and Rabbinical students at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.